It’s not often that an artist will nowadays deliver a double album’s worth of brand new material; it’s even rarer when it’s a triple threat. More so, when an artist has been around for over thirty years. But Steve Barton, the singer/songwriter/guitarist of the legendary (and quite wonderful) Translator has done just that – a true labor of love with his three album magnum opus, Tall Tales And Alibis (a great and clever title, if there ever was one).
The three albums which make up Tall Tales And Alibis each have their own unique feel. Album one is filled with the more “upbeat” songs; album two captures a “moody” vibe – and is all sung in Steve’s lower register. There is a cover of “In The Wee Small Hours Of The Morning” and a slow, quiet and dark version of Steve’s Translator hit “Unalone.” He plays and sings everything on these two records himself, and produced these tracks at his studio in Portland, Oregon. The third album is a band effort, recorded in Los Angeles with a core group, specially hand-picked for these sessions. This line-up includes Dave Scheff from Translator on drums, Pete Thomas from Elvis Costello’s Attractions on drums for three of the songs, Nelson Bragg (Brian Wilson’s band) on percussion, Derrick Anderson (bass guitarist extraordinaire) holding down the bass spot and part of the treat is having the band play live in the studio on all cuts. You can easily tell there was quite an inspired vibe. You could say, when looking at the thematic unity of each individual disc that this is (albeit loosely) a concept album.
So, sensibly, let’s begin with the first disc, starting with “How Can I Believe?”, a warm and stripped down number and a magnificent lyric like “how can I believe in God when you’re the one who’s divine?”; the Kinks-like “Shadow Of The Bride” kicks (and listen to how these guitar “swoopes” come in; the brilliantly-titled “I Only Want To Be Your Clown” has a very “Sounds Great When You’re Dead” kind of motoring riff and “When She’s Lost Your Mind” has this glorious swirling, reverb guitar and riff that makes this an absolute standout – and if there’s justice in this world anywhere, it’ll be played on radio. All the tracks that make up the first album are acoustic based; very low-fi and intimate.
Disc two is, indeed, the “darker” disc – as bare-boned as you can get and sung by Mr. Barton in a hushed and deeper tone of voice. Slow, mournful and exceedingly chilling. “Breath” is intriguing as it’s exquisite – and make no mistake: although these songs are completely stark and stripped down, do not misinterpret these as demos; these are clean; well-produced and minimal. “Northwest Girl”, with its orchestral sounding piano is hauntingly beautiful; the old Translator hit, “Unalone” is revisited and re-arranged to have an even greater urgency in the lyrical delivery – “Sometimes it feels like there’s gonna be a war today…” takes on a completely new meaning in light of these times. “Tearing Out The Roses” is painful and majestic – it has the feeling of an old hymn, even though it’s a reflection of a relationship lost (“…I’m tearing out these roses; they only make me cry…”) and “Haunt Me Tonight” is an acoustic blues, delivered in that dry, lower register.
The third album is the pure pop explosion, set off by the rollicking “Wake Up In Roses”, with its near brass punches and 7th chords galore; “She Is The Girl” has a very ’70’s soul vibe – especially with the timely Hammond punches – it sounds like it was recorded by Willie Mitchell while “Gimme Your Hand” is a fun noise assault that cuts loose while remaining within a pop framework. “Where Did I Go Wrong” sounds like an update of the Graham Gouldman-style of song structure with its minor chord body but it’s got a “Things We Said Today”/”Bus Stop” lineage – except more intense and modern. The take of the old Stones track “Dandelion” sounds like T. Rex, which is a great juxtaposition and works and “I Fly” ends the album in a very satisfying, very classic soulful manner, but with the perfect tag line: “I fucking love you…”.
Obviously, while there’s a great deal of thought, heart and emotion poured into these songs and performances, it’s also really heartening to find so much lightness and cutting loose in a studio setting and this is what balances this 3 album collection and gives it life and structure. A writer like Steve Barton isn’t around for 30-plus years because he has nothing better to do – it’s because he can still offer something meaningful and uplifting (even among the more restrained moments). So make a note to seek out, purchase and envelope yourself in Tall Tales & Alibis. It will be time well spent.
Tall Tales & Alibis will be released on Friday, March 2nd, 2018